Song for a City
Cities have long been an object of fascination for poets, writers, artists, even the people walking their streets and populating them. It is something indefinable about them, perhaps, that has captured the words and thoughts of so many, and it appears that for every stage of development for cities, from the classical era through the slow rise of industrialization, a new voice emerges to write about them.
Priscilla Sneff’s O Wooly City is a look at cities today. It is not a collection of poems inspired by the grandeur of old cities, although older cities make their appearance, but it instead presents a new mythology of the present city. As its title suggests, O Wooly City is at once sweeping and grand, whimsical and lyric, and is both a musing and a bold address to something much bigger than itself.
Sneff starts the chapbook with “New Science,” a poem that sets the tone for her collection in many ways. In her verse, she draws information from many different sources. The view of the poem is constantly shifting from one passing idea to the next, all running along a common theme of knowledge, but always transient, like the very thing that she’s trying to find out more about is always that extra step beyond her grasp: “*Here begins a new science*. Bells stirring their metal tongues,/ Bending their savvy vowels around buildings — Hooey, Hooey, — / Sounding us out. Oh, the city is finding us out,...”
Sneff’s poems are, in essence, a tempting puzzle for the reader. She works riddles and clues into the meaning of her words and her arrangements, expressing vivid images without over-burdening the reader with wordiness. She chooses precisely the right words to convey her meaning, as well as leaves a lyrical treat for her listener.
In “The Daimon,” her description of a shade not only portrays its nature with words, but also with the consonant sounds she incorporates: “...soft shadow/ of smeared ink, confection of dark air.” She combines soft, easy sounds with rough ones to produce the alternately smooth and jagged edges of the shadow and leaves the description hanging over two lines to emphasize how this shadow is itself hanging over someone.
Sneff shows that good poetry need not rhyme constantly. When Sneff does rhyme, the reader gets a sense that it’s to create a resonance within the line, rather than accent it at the end. Her musical composition and placement of the other, non-rhyming words is really what gives her poems rhythm and flow. It is almost as though rhyme has become some add-on, a flourish, that Sneff only wishes to employ on special occasions. In “Chance Become My Science,” a title which itself is very rhythmic, Sneff employs this to great effect. “...and I have/ Loved this life as an experiment — an act of science/ And an act of ruth — I’ve kept for this city my last half heart/ (I lost the other to the chance of art). And so, stirred of a loud silence, [...]”
The weak rhyme in “science” and “silence” gently joins the lines together, but, interestingly enough, what Sneff stresses with the stronger rhyme between “heart” and “art” is the connection that stretches across half a line. It sounds like a gentle rebuff, a light, clip explanation, instead of the weightier implications that it would take on being at the end of the line.
Throughout the book, it becomes apparent that Sneff likes to have fun with the words she writes. In “O Wooly City,” the titular poem, she writes, “Where love’s brooklike dagger shivers. Drat love’s daggery thirst./ And drat this wooliness: I promise you that there’ll be facts/ But many other things are, City, necessary first...”
She playa with an appearance of the dagger, curving, winding down toward the blade like a river, and then with how love itself is like a dagger, a weapon always thirsty and, in this case, always painful. Her “wooliness” is exactly the opposite of what she was doing in “New Science.” The goal is still to acquire knowledge — facts — but she says that there are other things, untruths that must come first before the matter of fact is discussed. It seems oxymoronic at first, and leaves one to wonder if the narrator is a foolish person or just sees something else that no one else does: that sometimes the imaginary is just as important as the real.